Brand central: Barefoot Proximity mixes it up

What makes someone pick one dog leash over another?

That question inspired creative thinkers at Cincinnati Barefoot Proximity as they brainstormed about ways to work with their partner Flexi, one of the leading sellers of retractable dog leashes. When it comes to leashes, the color or utility of the leash – not its brand -- most often drives the final purchase decision.

That means that dog leashes occupy what Barefoot staff calls "white space," a previously untapped space in consumer goods ripe for a new product with a strong brand identity.

Enter Alcott, a cartoon dog created to enhance leash manufacturer Flexi's position in the pet product market. With white fur, brown spots, a pointed nose and millions of dollars of potential, Alcott builds a connection between dog lovers and Flexi through illustrated storybooks, ads and potential a Saturday morning cartoon.

"There is an indispensability of the brand to the story or the content," says Troy Hitch, Barefoot's EVP and executive creative director. "We are creating an emotional, relevant, story that connects to dog lovers. Flexi is there because the leash is there. It's not jamming it down someone's throat."

This is the beauty of Barefoot, which started as a local advertising agency in 1993 by Doug Worple. The name is based on a poem by Nadine Stair that Worple discovered about the time he founded Barefoot. In the poem, Stair suggests that if she had it to do all over again, she would go barefoot sooner in the spring and stay barefoot later into the fall. The poem spoke to Worple as he was starting his own company and pursuing his passion for advertising and big ideas.

Now owned by Omnicom, and the BBDO Proximity Group, one of the largest and most celebrated ad agencies in the world, the company took on the name proximity and become part of a company that has 62 global offices, 2,000 employees and is leading a new way of thinking in the world of advertising. Barefoot and its partners create useful products that also happen to create a unique position for companies to sponsor ads and become partners. In short, it's brand-building for the 21st century.

One sign of the company's forward-moving agenda can be seen in how it identifies itself and the Barefoot Proximity brand. Labeled as a digital and eCRM agency, Barefoot tries to deepen consumer's connection with brands through innovative strategies, including projects like CoachHub.

"Contemporary digital customer relationship management, is what eCRM refers to," says Steve Kissing, Barefoot's VP and creative director "We use the new tools we have at our disposal to establish and deepen relationships and be ever smarter in the way we help brands interact with consumers."

Ask someone at Barefoot to describe the company and you probably won't get a specific answer. A key repeated word? "Invention." At Barefoot, the invention is not simply an ad or a marketing strategy. Instead, it's an experience-driven examination of how to enhance sales and feed consumer needs at the same time.

"We are ever-evolving," Hitch says. "A company that is willing to reexamine itself and restructure is essential in today's world. Media is changing so fast, and brands want to be closer to consumers. We have to shift just as fast as consumer behavior."

One major shift at Barefoot addresses the changes in print media advertising. As companies look for ever more creative ways to keep their products on the minds of consumers, they are buying fewer ads in traditional print media, including newspapers and, to a lesser, extent, magazines. In response, Barefoot offered an innovative solution: create a website with dedicated editorial content targeted at brand or product-specific demographics.

Take manofthehouse.com, for example. The popular niche site targets men who are settling into their family lives and looking for tips and tricks on a wide range of topics, from cooking to fashion. Barefoot launched the site with help from staff writers who write stories designed to attract young fathers.

Ironically, some staff writers moved to Barefoot from traditional media outlets. "Honestly, it's not any different from what I came from," says Daniele Cusentino, staff writer at Barefoot and former Ganett/Cincinnati.com employee. "Besides the tone, which is more action oriented, it's the same as writing for traditional media."

Writers like Cusentino create directed, relevant and unique content for websites that provides their demographic useful resources. Many articles like, "10 Things You Should Never, Ever Say" garner hundreds of comments. Manofthehouse.com, just one of Barefoot's websites, has more than 4,000 likes on Facebook, which makes it comparable to several niche print magazines, like GreenScene or Motorcycle magazines.

Once Barefoot created the content and launched website, staff approached companies, including Procter & Gamble, to become a partner with Manofthehouse.com. In return, they could post ads on the site. Barefoot's websites provide P&G with spaces to target specific demographics with their ads.

"We are creating a community of relevance where multiple brands can come and interact with the exact consumers they want to," Hitch says. "If you want to talk to dads, we can do exactly that."

Barefoot's strategy revolves around helping consumers more than selling a specific product. The company creates a product that fills a community need, launches it online and generates color in a previously white space. Hitch and his team look for relevance, sustainability and profitability with each new invention.

"The future for us is in these ideas," Kissing says. "Our work now is on invention. We have to develop ways for brands to have relationships with consumers, and that is only going to happen if we stay creative."

All photos by Scott Beseler.
From top: Troy Hitch of Barefoot Proximity finds creative focus at work. Here he is, pictured with Daniele Cusentino.


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